Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Trudy Lewis. Lewis is the author of the story collection The Bones of Garbo (Ohio State University Press, 2003) and the novel Private Correspondences (Northwestern University Press, 1994). Her latest novel, The Empire Rolls, will be published by Moon City Press on November 1st, 2014.
When Virginia Woolf imagined the future of women’s fiction, she might have been conjuring up the work of Allegra Goodman. Woolf wanted to read about Chloe and Olivia, who were not sisters or sexual rivals, but who enjoyed working together in a lab. This is the subject of Goodman’s Intuition, published in 2006 but set in the 80s. Goodman’s plot concerns a Cambridge lab in the fictional Philpott Institute. The flashy oncologist Sandy Glass and the introverted researcher Marion Mendelssohn rule over the lab like father and mother. The postdocs, their intellectual offspring, compete for attention, funding, and approval.
The story moves into high gear when the lab’s favored son Cliff Bannaker produces astounding results with a new cancer drug. Sandy, seizing the opportunity to win his next NIH grant, wants to publicize the results immediately. Marion, more conservative, hesitates, but eventually allows her charismatic partner to assuage her doubts. Meanwhile, the lab’s neglected daughter, Robin Decker, intuits the flaws in Cliff’s research and is drawn, irresistibly, toward the dark side of dissenters, whistle-blowers, and malcontents.
Goodman excels at portraying the passion of scientific research, and Intuition can serve as an illuminating counterpart to Possession, A.S. Byatt’s great novel of literary apprenticeship, in which male and female scholars compete and collaborate to uncover clues about the romance between two enigmatic Victorian poets. Goodman too concocts a heady, sexually charged, multigenerational plot of ambition and discovery. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of the book is Goodman’s nuanced portrayal of the work romance between Marion and Sandy. Although the author reveals no hint of sexual transgression, the powerful generative energy of this work couple drives the story forward and, in its complexity, suggests a necessary relation between devotion and ambition, purity and self-promotion.
Here the consummated romance between Cliff and Robin, already faltering by the novel’s opening scene, provides an instructive counterpoint. Cliff, like Sandy, has arrived at his position through untested privilege while Robin, humbled by her origins and her years in the field, champions the virtues of hesitation and doubt, along with the overlooked scientific value of negative results. In one scene, Robin watches Cliff with envy and awe: “…Robin saw Cliff clearly through the red-tinted window. He was blood red, wine red, maraschino red, the red of cell media, the red of stained slides. He’d found his way into the inner chamber of discovery.”
In a structural sense, this is a break-up novel, dividing the heterosexual couples to leave the two women facing one another at the story’s end. In 1980, 2006, or even 2014, we still haven’t realized the feminist utopia of Woolf’s imagination. But Goodman suggests, through her deft intuitive plotting, that Marion and Robin, like Chloe and Olivia, may one day reach some mutual understanding of their own.
Goodman also charts the evolution of her male characters, who are subtly transformed by their encounters with defeat and negativity. Sandy, glimpsing impermanence through the end of his partnership with Marion, can now sympathize with his patients’ mortality, while Cliff sees his public humiliation as the true beginning of his scientific career. In an era of factionalism and flash, Goodman practices the novelistic virtues of balance and perspective. Far from choosing winners and losers, she writes, “How strange the way success and failure contained each other. How close vindication and humiliation had proved.”
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